Amidst all the depressing news of restaurant closures, Charlotte Street seems to be bucking the trend. This conduit between Noho and Soho has always been a reliable base for eating out but in recent years it had started to wane: Elena’s L’Etoile, Pescatori and Navarro’s are no more. But it seems this foodiest of streets has passed that nadir and is now on the ascendancy again. With Mere, Bubbledogs, The Ninth, Vaga Bond, and further down on Rathbone Place Lima and Circolo Popolare, it’s almost impossible to keep up (a first world complaint if ever there was one).
And now Norma has opened, located in a narrow three-floor Georgian townhouse where a Brasserie Blanc (and before that a Chez Gerard) used to be, leaving a Côte as the last-standing faux-French chain on the street. Norma is far from French though: this is firmly Sicilian with occasional nods to Sicily’s own Arabian influences.
Norma is the first offsite venture by The Stafford in Mayfair – home of Palate favourite The Game Bird. High-end hotels are having to reinvent themselves just as much as any other business. Since coffee shops started to become offices, and railway stations shopping malls, hotels have started to offer daytime rooms and collaborative work spaces for freelancers. So why not branch out their food offering to satellite, pedestrian outposts? Norma doesn’t feel anything like its parent hotel though, not only with its northern African décor, but also the somewhat stilted service we experienced on our visit. I’m sure the issues we had with dishes arriving in the wrong order will be ironed out in due course (and who really cares about the pasta arriving after the secondi – they all end up in the same place, don’t they?).
Norma does the whole trendy small plates thing, which can be frustrating if you particularly like a dish and want to eat more of it, but it at least allows you to sample different things.
We dipped our toes in first with on-trend smoked cod’s roe from their raw fish bar, lardo on toast and delicious nocellara olives from the south-west of Sicily.
Then, another dish hailing from the Sicilian tradition: saffron arancini. I suspect the arancini here are made the classic Sicilian way of boiling the rice by itself rather than using leftover risotto as they do in, say, Milan. These arancini – in the form of a large, singular ball and decorated in parmesan – had just a ghostly presence of saffron in the background and were a little dry.
Next up, thinly-sliced bavette with grape must, borlotti beans and romano pepper was a colourful plate with all of the ingredients in harmony, though the chalkiness of the beans brought more of the dryness experienced with the arancini.
The aubergine parmigiana, another classic southern dish, wasn’t particularly unique but it was up there with the best I’ve had. Each layer of aubergine melted into the other, providing the perfect Mediterranean antidote to autumn.
And then, quite possibly, one of the best dishes I’ve had this year: strozzapreti (cooked perfectly al dente) with a pork, anchovy, mint and orange (yes, orange) ragu. The use of citrus in a ragu was a revelation to me, cutting through the fat of the pork and adding a sharpness to the dish without overpowering it with saccharine sweetness. Bravo.
On this visit the desserts seemed to be rather lacking though on subsequent research the list has expanded a little. The chocolate brioche bun with salted caramel ice cream wasn’t particularly remarkable though fun nonetheless. The cannoli were tempting but by this point we were well and truly stuffed.
Apart from some minor inconsistencies, little could be faulted in chef Ben Tish’s cookery, who is well-known for his love of Mediterranean cuisine. Perhaps more could be done to bring out the advertised Moorish influences but that’s starting to get fastidious. Overall it’s all about whether you feel well-fed at a reasonable price. Norma delivers both, even if the service is still on the nursery slopes.
8 Charlotte Street
by J A Smith